As a young law student at the University of Lagos, I belonged to several campus organisations that were devoted to anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Unilag at the time was also home to several South African students who were granted full scholarships by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Their housing, tuition and feeding were free. They lived big on campus while Nigerian students struggled to cope with their boarding, school fees and feeding expenses. I remember we used to celebrate all African National Congress landmark events in the anti-apartheid struggle such as the Soweto massacre of June 1976, etc.
As young Nigerian students in our early twenties, we were very passionate about anti-apartheid struggle; we felt incomplete as Africans without the total emancipation of Black South Africans. Many of the South African Students at Unilag were my personal friends and because of our activities, I was regarded as one of their leaders on Campus. I remember when we lost one of them, we were the ones that arranged his burial at Ikoyi Cemetery. I recall one of our colleagues at Ikoyi cemetery on that day, Akin Ogunlola, crying profusely and uncontrollably at the sight of the lifeless body of the late South African comrade who, we were told, had died as a result of complications from the physical torture and injury he suffered in the hands of the apartheid police. The ANC Representative at the time, Comrade Victor Matlou, promised us that the late student’s remains would be exhumed and reburied in South Africa once the country was liberated. I’m not sure whether this promise was ever kept.
After I left Unilag, some of my colleagues in the anti-apartheid movement from across the country in collaboration with the Nigerian office of the ANC came together to form the Nigeria-African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association. Because most of the NAFCA members were officers and members of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NAFCA used to operate from the NLC Secretariat at Yaba, Lagos. I served as the first Vice President and later became the President. The Association worked with the National Committee Against Apartheid, a Federal Government agency headed at the time by Mrs. Anjorin and Matlou, later Comrade George Nene, to rally support for the ANC and other anti-apartheid militants in South Africa. The Nigerian Government spent huge resources on anti-apartheid campaigns and championed the cause as if our lives and destiny as a people depended on it. As far as the whole world was concerned, anti-apartheid struggle was a Nigerian project as Nigeria spearheaded most of the calls for sanction against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Our Nigerian artists were not left out: we all remember great efforts of people like the late Sunny Okosun, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and several other Nigerian artists who popularised the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa.
To say that Nigeria invested so much in anti-Apartheid struggle is an understatement. Because of our brothers and sisters in South Africa, Nigeria nationalised several multinational corporations operating in Nigeria with business connections in South Africa, sanctioned and severed relationship with them: Barclays Bank and BP were some of these corporations. In doing this, the Federal Government of Nigeria took a risk on the consequences of such action on our economy.
Indeed, it was as a result of Nigeria’s contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle that Nigeria was one of the very first African countries visited by late Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison in appreciation of our contributions. My Association, NAFCA, played a big role in the reception. In fact, it was the daughter of our President then, Mrs. Glory Kilanko, that presented a beautiful flower bouquet to Mandela at his reception in Lagos.
How did the South Africans get it wrong? Does it mean that the present crop of South Africans don’t know their history? Does it mean that they lack proper understanding of the political economy of South Africa? Do they know who their real enemies are? We can ask a thousand rhetoric questions that will continue to beg for answers but the most important issue is that Xenophobia does nobody any good. It turns brothers against brothers, nations against nations and causes disunity in Africa. The poor immigrants that are being attacked on daily basis are not the cause of the economic disequilibrium or unemployment in South Africa. Xenophobia is not new in South Africa. It is a reaction to the shock the South African blacks were confronted with immediately after attaining freedom. They had thought that with them in control of government, manna would begin to drop from heaven, that their black leaders would ensure even distribution of wealth to every South African black. They had thought that their freedom meant freedom from poverty and want and freedom from economic slavery. They had thought that apartheid would end white domination of South African economy, but they were absolutely wrong. Immediately after the political emancipation, black South Africans were confronted with the scourge of unemployment and economic deprivation. White minorities continued to dominate the economic landscape to the extent that less than one per cent of the population controls about 90 per cent of the Nation’s resources, leaving the remaining 10 per cent of the resources to be scrambled for by about 98 per cent of the population, including those other African immigrants who come in from other African countries, including Nigeria, to join the rat race that leads nowhere. This is the crux of the matter; a misplaced aggression and scavengers mentality.
As I said, this has been on for a while. I remember one of my friends who also took part in the anti-apartheid activities in Nigeria left for South Africa to settle there immediately Mandela was inaugurated as its first ever black president. The expectations were high and I remember my friend telling me that he would like to migrate there to take advantage of the opportunities that a new South Africa under Mandela would provide. Though I counseled against the move, he left with a promise to get back to me upon settling down there. Yes, we communicated for a little while but each time we spoke, he would complain bitterly about the harsh economic realities in South Africa and its consequences on the black South Africans. He would complain about their disappointments and the rate of violence and he would complain about the hostile character of the South African Police. Then suddenly I didn’t hear from him again.
There was total breakdown in communication between both of us. His phone number that I used to call was no longer in service and I was greatly disturbed. Surprisingly, in the early hours of one faithful day in 1996, my friend returned to Nigeria. I was baffled when I saw him. He looked very different from the robust, energetic young man that left for South Africa. He was very sickly and emaciated. I was short of words, very disturbed. He said he was arrested by the South African Police for no reason and summarily jailed though he was pursuing a legitimate business in South Africa. He was very sick in prison and when the authorities discovered that he might die in jail, he was released and later assisted back to Nigeria by a kind hearted Nigerian doctor who treated him while in jail. In short, the young man died just few months after returning to Nigeria and was buried with his dreams at Atan Cemetery, Lagos. That was his only reward for supporting his Black brothers and sisters in South Africa to end apartheid. That was then, but the South African Police are still intimidating and killing Nigerians there up till today aside from the jungle justice we call xenophobia. While the South African Police profile Nigerians, harass and torture them by the day, xenophobia extends to other African countries such as Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya and so on.
Do we as Nigerians need to take the laws into our hands and retaliate the way they treat us? I don’t believe so. Two wrongs, they say, don’t make a right and we are far more decent, tolerant, accommodating and pan-African. Rather, our government should immediately engage their government, the African Union should also intervene and condemn these attacks on ourselves. The South African Government should engage her citizens and also create more and equal employment opportunities for them. Unfortunately, ending apartheid is not synonymous with nationalisation of the vast resources which are currently in the firm grip of the white minorities who continue to dominate the economy. Sadly, the political power in the hands of the black majority is a sham without the economic power. An average black South African scavenges on the economy and eats the crumbs from the palatial table of the white minority. This contrived arrangement has made many of them to become desperate, disillusioned, intolerant and oftentimes unleash violence gainst wrong targets. Be that as it may, targeting Nigerians for xenophobic attacks is no doubt, regrettably, lack of gratitude by these South Africans.